On my Kitchen Disasters post, I got an interesting question from one of my readers and a prospective student:
What’s the best dining plan to get? I’d rather only pay for the cheapest one, but if you do that you don’t get a lot of meals in dining halls per week and so how are you supposed to be able to eat three meals a day? Is it worth it to do your own cooking in addition to whatever meal plan you get? How does everyone manage this? “
I started to answer in a comment…and then it blew up into the post you see below. The short answer, of course, is:
The best meal plan for you will depend on your financial budget, academic schedule, and desire for convenience.”
But that is so incredibly vague and unhelpful that even I knew I couldn’t leave at just that. So, here is a little more about my experience with meal plans, and hopefully that will help you figure out what decisions to make regarding yours. Here we go!
As a Freshman, I purchased the cheapest meal plan and still ate three meals a day. I used BRBs and cash to purchase lunches and dinners, while eating breakfasts at dining halls. I found that this plan was most convenient for my schedule; the dining halls’ hours and locations made it hard for me to get to the dining halls in between classes in time for lunch or dinner. However, since most dining halls are located on North campus (where all the Freshman dorms are situated), it was incredibly convenient to grab breakfast there before heading out to central campus for classes. If I had bought the more expensive plan, then I would have wasted money on meals I could not redeem given my schedule. Plus, it was much easier to add BRBs to my meal account or to acquire extra cash when needed than to quickly use up meal swipes before they expired (no rollover benefits here). I was also more than willing to trade up the buffets for quick to-go meals or home-cooked goodness since I already ate small portions.
Given its flexibility, I always recommend taking the cheapest meal plan and purchasing the rest of your weekly meals with cash. You can buy from more places and change up where you eat more easily than otherwise. The downsides would include having to pay more out-of-pocket each time you want to enter a dining hall beyond the number of times included in your plan, since prices for non-meal plan customers are slightly higher. However, I find that students who live on West Campus or who spend a lot of time back in their dorm rooms on North are far more likely to encounter this problem than people living in Collegetown (like me), people who live off-campus, or Freshman who live on North Campus but spend most of their times at classes, work, or the like. For your first semester, you may find that going with a more expensive plan will be helpful and then choose to down-grade to a lower plan once you have a better idea of what you prefer. Talk with your family about what you can afford and be realistic about what lifestyle you expect to maintain on campus. It will help you make a better decision.
If you chose the cheapest meal plan, you can then decide to eat on-campus, eat off-campus, or cook to make up the missing meals. I think cooking is an excellent way to fill that need. It is much cheaper than the other alternatives. It allows for greater customization and it’s a great life skill to acquire early in life. However, it can be time-consuming as well. Again, depending on how heavy your coursework is, it might not be the best idea for you. If you are unsure about how difficult your first semester might be, then you might want to reconsider the alternatives or a bigger meal plan.
A quick tip: find other students who are interested in cooking with you. A group of people can share cooking equipment and help each other cook meals in much quicker time frames. You can also make deals with students on expenses; for example, a friend of yours can be in charge of buying and getting the groceries while you plan and make the meals. This tactic is used a lot by students who live off-campus. The downside is you become dependent on your friends and on kitchen space; so make sure they are all reliable and consistently available!
Eating on-campus or off-campus is really easy and convenient because they are just so many different places to eat. It’s more expensive than cooking for yourself, but I think it is actually less expensive than committing to bloated meal plans you don’t fully use. Mixing it together–eating out for lunch, but cooking 2-5 dinners a week–can balance out the cons of both activities. With websites that let you have food and groceries delivered to your dorm, it really is all too easy to get food outside the dining halls on campus.
Keep in mind these few other tips when looking into meal plans:
- Pay attention to how long meal plans last and what rolls over. As I mentioned earlier, you can always choose one meal plan for your Freshman year and then switch to a different plan in the future when you have a better sense of what you need. However, you can only change meal plans at the end of the year and only certain items roll over across semester. For example, if you do not eat all the meals you have available in your plan for the week, then they do not roll over to the next week. You lose them, for good, and you don’t get your money back at the end of the semester for whatever you did not eat. BRBs, however, do roll over from the Fall semester into the Spring semester. So if you have $30 at the end of December in BRBs, then that $30 gets added to the new BRBs you acquire through your plan for the Spring. Take that aspect into consideration; it can be stressful feeling as if you need to get meals in in order to make use of your own money.
- Where you live can dictate what and where you eat. As a Freshman, you have to get some meal plan. However, if you live in Risley Hall, where there is a dining hall withing your building, you’re probably going to eat there more often than not. If you live in the Townhouses, you may want to cook more (those houses are pretty far away from campus, comparatively…). Check out a map of North Campus and see how convenient dining halls are for where you will be located. Also, go to dining.cornell.edu and get a sense of the dining halls’ offerings; if you don’t like what they typically serve, then you probably won’t want to eat there a lot. After your Freshman year, your housing can once again play a huge role on what plan you get. If you live in dorms on West Campus, then the dorms themselves will require you to purchase a hefty meal plan. However, living in Collegetown dorms like Sheldon give you the option to completely opt-out of a meal plan and live completely on cash or on BRBs. Don’t forget those requirements later on when this question about meal plan strikes again.
- Once you get your class schedule, go to dining.cornell.edu and see when the dining halls are open. Great! You secured some free time between 3PM and 3:30PM for lunch every day! One problem: you can’t get to any dining halls in time to get food, sit down, eat, and get back to classes on time. Plus, the ones you love are closed for cleaning during those times! This scenario happens so many times. Make sure you don’t fall prey to it.
I hope that answered some of your questions! If you have any more, leave them in the comments below and I will be sure to answer them. Food is an important subject for me, so I enjoy talking about it on this blog. If you are another reader who wants to add anything about the use of meal plans or the food scene at Cornell, head down to the comment section and add your two cents to the conversation. I really enjoyed writing up a post as an answer to someone’s question. If anyone else has anything to ask about a different, I might consider making another one of these sort of posts. What do you guys think?